Learning from Latina Students: Modern Dance Meets Salsa and Merengue

Article excerpt

The students at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York are almost exclusively Latino (52 percent) and African American (41 percent). Most are non-traditional students in their mid-20s to their mid-40s. Many of them are parents, and almost all have jobs or work-study assignments in addition to their student coursework. Most are also enrolled in remedial classes for reading, writing, and mathematics, and many are taking English as a second language.

Such demographics can have a profound effect on one's teaching experience. I came to BCC's Department of Health, Physical Education, and Wellness to teach "Beginning Modern Dance" after more than 20 years of teaching dance, choreographing, performing, and working as a dance therapist. This class combines technical skill development, structured improvisation, choreography, and analysis of dance on video, and I expected that teaching it would be extremely enjoyable, since the students come from cultural backgrounds in which love and respect for dance is high (Hazzard-Gordon, 1991; Concepcion, 1994; Roscow & Dratch, 1989). However, my first semester proved much more difficult than I had anticipated.

My initial group of students seemed to expect to master modern dance immediately. When they were not able to perform movements skillfully on their first try, they became frustrated and angry. They gave up easily, and they seemed to feel that what was asked of them was impossible. It was almost as if they were spending so much time "struggling to survive" (Shorris, 1992, p. 27) in other areas of their lives that they didn't have any energy left over to struggle in dance class. They expected dancing to be fun, to give them relief from the pressures of their hectic lives, and they expected to be good at it.

One of the keys to effective teaching in dance technique is to find just that level of difficulty at which the students are challenged, but not overwhelmed. Yet I kept having to make my first BCC classes easier and easier by increasing the amount of time we spent on improvisation. Although this made the class atmosphere more pleasant, student progress in actual technical skill development was very slow. Furthermore, the students did not seem to be experiencing much of the exhilaration of modern dance, which was one of the principal goals of the course.

Getting Student Feedback

At the end of this first semester, I asked my students to write anonymous critiques of the class in response to the following questions: "What did you like about this class?" "What did you dislike about this class?" "How could this class be improved?" Their responses were an unmistakable call for a more multicultural teaching approach. Eighty percent of the students wrote that the class could be improved if I acknowledged that they came from different cultural backgrounds by including more movement and music from these cultures. They specifically asked to dance salsa and merengue, affirming their need to express themselves physically and socially through their cultural heritage (Schwartz, 1991). Although they felt that the class had a positive atmosphere, and they enjoyed analyzing the dance videos, they thought that the movement techniques I taught were too hard. They were particularly frustrated by my 45-minute warm-ups, which they felt were too long (half the length of the class) and too difficult.

The next semester, I began to use more Latin and African music in my warm-ups, and I incorporated more Latin social dance movement and African dance steps into the traveling sections of the class. An unexpected opportunity to make further curricular alterations came my way when the president of the college's minority faculty organization asked me to put together a dance presentation for Latino Heritage Month. I asked my modern dance students if they would like to perform in this program, and they responded with great enthusiasm.

Creating a Student-Centered Dance Project

I began this project by asking the students to bring in music that they liked. …